Dave Eggers and I go way back. It all started when one of my friends got me A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for my twentieth birthday – I fell in love instantly. In a very short period of time, I bought You Shall Know Our Velocity, How We Are Hungry, The Wild Things, and even hunted down a secondhand edition of Short Short Stories in a desperate attempt to keep my Eggers momentum going for as long as possible. The only book that was left for me to read was What Is The What, just one more… But I couldn’t bring myself to read it. If I finished that novel, there would be no more Eggers for me to read, and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. For some reason, seeing that book in stores, knowing that it was right there, waiting for me, was comforting. There was still one left.
As years went on, Eggers kept writing and publishing books, but I still couldn’t bring myself to read his new work. At university, I had spread my wings as a reader and I was afraid that I had built him up too much in my head, that I wouldn’t be nearly as impressed now as when I was younger. Would the thrill be gone?
Eventually I ended up reading Zeitoun for one of my classes and as I had feared, it left me cold. I loved the flawed, angry, pretentious Eggers, not this grown-up, polished, political version – and felt really guilty about my preference. Was I just not mature enough for Eggers 2.0? This Eggers was no longer concerned with one man’s pain, but looked at the bigger picture of The World Today by telling True Stories about people who had been put through hell by the System. This Eggers had a Point to make about Society and this was all very admirable… But I just couldn’t get into it. I missed the fury, the arrogance, the mess – everything that had initially rubbed a lot of readers the wrong way in the first place. I never did pick up What Is The What. Or The Circle. Or A Hologram For The King. My love affair with Eggers seemed to be over – but I kept wondering. Had I deprived myself from some stellar books by a one-time snap judgment?
This brings us to earlier this year. After months of staring at the gloriously ridiculously titled Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, I finally decided to take the plunge. One more try. One last hurrah. For 212 pages, I would give Eggers another chance to win me back – and he did. Kind of.
In a way, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? was the perfect work to draw me back in, since it combines New Eggers with Old Eggers. Yes, this book has a Point to hammer home about war, police brutality, and government spending – but there are also shades of what made me fall in love with his work in the first place. One of my favourite passages in You Shall Know Our Velocity (which is full of great passages, especially on grief) is when the protagonist has narrowly escaped death and now finds himself at a loss of what to do:
I wanted so many times while driving to flip, to skid and flip and fall from the car and have something happen. I wanted to land on my head and lose half of it, or land on my legs and lose one or both. I wanted something to happen so my choices would be fewer, so my map would have a route straight through, in red. I wanted limitations, boundaries, to ease the burden; because the agony, Jack, when we were up there in the dark, was in the silence! All I ever wanted was to know what to do.
This not knowing what to do, this lack of direction and the terror that comes with it – that, to me, is one of the defining issues of modern life and one of my personal obsessions. I have written essays about it, read a number of books about analysis paralysis (tip: More Is Less: The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz)… And it all started right there, with that quote. A first world problem if ever there was one, but so very interesting nonetheless. When you are told that you can do anything and be anything as long as you work hard and follow the right path, reality can really only lead to disappointment. And then what?
In Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, Eggers returns to this theme of how freedom can be paralysing. The main character, Thomas, is a troubled young man who decides to kidnap a group of people and finally ask the questions that have been plaguing him for years. He feels lost and confused, which he blames on the fact that he has never seen war:
- [...] I am pretty sure that I would have turned out better, and everyone I know would have turned out better, if we’d been part of some universal struggle, some cause greater than ourselves. [...] It’s because nothing’s happened to me. And I think that’s a waste on your part. You should have found some kind of purpose for me.
- Who should have?
- The government. The state. Anyone, I don’t know. Why didn’t you tell me what to do?
See what I mean?
Thomas is frustrated by the way the world works and he cannot cope with the injustice of it all. One of his heroes is a man who dreamed of going to the moon, dedicated himself to this ambition, did all the right training, became an astronaut… But didn’t get to go after all. He did everything right, and his dream still didn’t come true. Thomas tries to talk to a politician about it, but this does not go quite the way he had expected:
- You said that I should play by the rules.
- Okay. I said that to a lot of people.
- And I did it. So where am I?
- And this is some failure of the formula? That you didn’t arrive at where you expected to be? And that your astronaut isn’t on the Shuttle? That somehow this puts in question the entire framework?
- Yes sir, that is my thesis.
- Well, I have to say, that is a cockamamie thesis. That’s like saying that if you lose a certain football game that the sport itself is flawed. Son, not everyone can win the game. Some people play it poorly. Some people quit. Some people don’t even read the playbook. And some people expect the rest of the team to carry them into the end zone.
- No. What I’m saying is that you moved the end zone. And you turned the grassy field into mud.
- I don’t know what to say to all that.
- You changed the rules.
This, to me, is where the heart of the book lies. Not in the obvious criticism of the current American political climate, not in the on-the-nose commentary on police brutality, but right here, in this conversation between these two characters. It’s the downfall of the American dream, the idea that you can make yourself into anything, and if you fail, you must have done something wrong. In the land of the free, anything is possible, and if you stumble and fall, you are the problem. It’s Millennials vs. Baby Boomers in a nutshell, a question of entitlement and responsibility, and it’s fascinating. I want more. Give me more.
And who knows, I might finally pick up What Is The What.
(Fun fact: in my head, Thomas was played by Mad Men‘s resident conspiracy theorist, Ginsberg. Hollywood, call me.)